Over the next several months these regular reflections and the virtual practice sessions will explore the buddhist practice of the paramitas. The exploration will be approached by encouraging direct experience of the paramitas in our individual lives. These written inquiries are not meant to be instructions on how to achieve a result. They are instead invitations to develop a relationship with the paramitas and encourage their realization through individual experience and contemplation. References will be made to buddhist sutras about the paramitas, commentaries on the sutras, and teachings from other traditions. In the latter case, we will be regularly exploring the parallel to the beatitudes from the christian teachings.
Before diving into the individual paramitas of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, mediation/concentration, and wisdom/insight, over the next few weeks, time will be spent preparing the ground for the exploration. The intent here is to loosen the mind from habitual perceptions of the concepts, by recognizing any attachment to ideas about the paramitas, or assumptions that we might be making about how they should be practiced or experienced. By turning the hardpacked soil of the conditioned thinking, there may be the opportunity for space to not only realize but express and celebrate the aspects of the paramitas that, according to many wisdom traditions, are the natural states of being human. Last week began by exploring, in this manner, the common translations of paramitas; “perfections”, “transcendences” and “gone to the other shore”.
This past week, while inquiring into the meaning of paramitas, I continued to have a sense that the English words, “perfections”, “transcendences” and even “gone to the other shore”, carried some weight of striving for an objective. (Granted, this is undoubtedly a result of personal experiences, causes, and conditions that echo in my mind when I hear these words and, as a result, are calcified in my way of experiencing them.) So, I looked into the etymology in both Sanskrit1 and Paali2. If you have done this before you know what a gopher’s warren it can be. In Sanskrit it seems to be the combination of two words pAara – beyond, and amita – boundless. In Pali, it seems to be a combination of parami – completeness or perfection and amita – immeasurable. So, for me, there is a sense of boundless immeasurability without qualification to the experience and practice of the paramitas. This leaves a void of striving, achievement or arriving at. There is a quality of ever-presence.
The word purity shows up repeatedly in the sutras and is often used to refer to the nature of mind or reality, using synonyms like stainless or clarity. The more I study the paramitas in the context of the sutras they seem to have these qualities, as well as begininglessness and immeasurability. When I reflect on the word purity in this context and am able to quiet the persistent definitions of purity of contemporary society, it represents the essences of generosity, discipline, patience, concentration/meditation, and insight/wisdom. In the sutras and their commentaries, gold, water, and space are frequently used as similes to point to the purity of the suchness or nature of reality.
Gold is always gold. It may be buried in dirt, covered with tarnish, molded into form, but it remains pure gold, it was always pure gold, and it will remain pure gold regardless of the conditions in which it is found. Whether it is a gnarly, bumpy mass or a finely wrought, delicate chain, the nature of gold remains the same. Water is unchangeably H2O in whatever form it appears or whatever container is holding it. And space has these qualities, as well as begininglessness and immeasurability. Space is also untouchable but experienceable. When I contemplate purity, absent of the concepts that have been applied to it in some Western traditions, there is a sense of ungraspability, absent of blemish. Such that even so called impurities express purity as their essence. Purity cannot be conjured or achieved. In a sense, it is what remains.
When I reflect on the paramitas, it is these qualities of original stainlessness, combined with begininglessness, that give rise to their transcendence from achievement, striving, judgment, or any relativity. They are pure in the sense that, regardless of how our thoughts, feelings and actions conceal them, they remain as pure qualities of our true nature and like space, they neither diminish or grow, disappear or appear. They are inconceivable but discernible. They cannot be thought but they can be known. They cannot be done but they do. In this sense the paramitas are purities.
Perhaps, when you have the opportunity and time, you might reflect on the paramitas as a whole or individually, letting them be immersed in your ideas of perfection, transcendence, beyond the other shore and purity. Perhaps you become aware of a different name, word, mark, experience, or sense, that rings the bell of nonconceptual wakefulness in you. Allow yourself to taste it, enjoy it, celebrate it. Then allow yourself to be touched, tasted, and enjoyed by the paramitas as they appear in your beingness, and your daily life. The practice of being human is not meant to be rigid, constricting or definitive. These explorations are not meant arrive at commandments, expectations, or obligations. Practicing the paramitas is an opportunity to bring pliability to the conditioned and habitual thoughts, feelings and actions and ultimately, freedom from suffering for us and all beings with whom we cohabit this universe and this time.
With these words I pay homage to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, sentient beings, and the totality. May these words not confuse, bring doubt, or harm, but bring ease and warmth. -William
1 Kosha Sanskrit Today https://kosha.sanskrit.today/
2 The Pali Text Societie’s Pali English DIctionary https://dsal.uchicago.edu/dictionaries/pali/
References for study:
The Six Paramitas Perfections of the Bodhisattva Path A Commentary by Chan Master Sheng Yen. Dharma Drum Publications 2001. https://chancenter.org/download/free-books/TheSixParamitas.pdf
Ornament of the Great Vehicle Sutras. Maitreya’s Mahayanasutralamakara with commentaries by Koenpo Shenga and Ju Mipham. Ch. 17, Transcendences and Means of Attractions. Snow Lion, Shambhala Publications 2014. Dharmachakra Translation Committee
Practicing in sangha, even virtually, seems to activate the yeast of meditation in a different way than sitting solitarily. The members of the Sangha of the Pandemic, invite you to share the bread of the practice with us. No experience is required. There is no cost. Everyone is welcome.
We practice on ZOOM:
- Mondays – Calm abiding and insight meditation. 6 AM Pacific Time
- Tuesdays – Body awareness. 6 AM Pacific Time
- Thursdays – Tonglen, 6 AM Pacific Time
- Sundays – Brahmavihara. 7 AM Pacific Time
- Monday and Thursday. Contemplation and meditation. 4:30 PM PacificTime
ZOOM Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789
Please feel free to reach out with questions or insights. Please also feel free to forward this post and invite others to join the sangha. You may find more reflections, poetry, art at sanghaofthepandemic.org